A few weeks before Homecoming sophomore year, I paid a junior kid everybody called Meatball 40 dollars to buy a case of Smirnoff Ice. I know this sounds like the first time I drank, but it wasn't (the first time I drank I was working a wine tasting as a dishwasher). Meatball was short and round. He looked like a meatball if you were a high school kid and you thought you were hilarious. A few days before the dance, I saw Meatball in the hallway and asked him if he picked up the Smirnoff. He said, "Oh, they didn't have it, so I got a case of Busch." Then he walked away without giving me my change. I got stiffed by Meatball. A case of Busch wasn't 40 bucks. Either he pocketed my change or bought more beer to cover the party. Either way, I get it. I was a soft, 15 year old recovering Jesus Freak with highlights in his hair asking for Smirnoff Ice. Secretly, I knew I was getting made fun of for wanting Smirnoff Ice and I never felt like more of a pussy. My school was full of hunters. Kids that knew how to hold guns. People that drank beer.
I bring this up because Root 174 in Pittsburgh served camouflage cans of Busch beer for $1.74. Camouflage, you see, because I went to Root during hunting season. This is Western Pennsylvania, after all. A place where last Summer I was warned by a gentleman in the woods, "You should wear brighter colors unless you want to get shot." As a kid, my friends would have sleepovers and wake up early to go hunting. I never went and I can't remember if I was ever invited. Getting up at 6 AM to go hunting seemed so foreign to me. I am sure my Uncle Mike referred to it at some point in his life as some "medegone shit." Growing up, everybody seemed to hunt, kill, and cook. Now I live in Los Angeles, surrounded by people that leave behind slider buns because of the carbs.
I loved everything about Keith Fuller and Root. The restaurant was completely approachable, which, Jesus Christ, I didn't realize how important that is. Three years ago, the first and only time I stepped into a Michelin starred restaurant, I immediately felt like I did something wrong. Everything was so quiet and orchestrated. Each plate hits the table at the same exact time. People talk to you as if you're high society, like you weren't drunk and yelling in the streets of Chicago the night before. "I don't deserve this," is what I thought every time a new course came across the table. Like, you guys know this dinner is 1/5th of my net worth, right? "I shouldn't be here" is what any sane person would think at a Michelin starred restaurant. Root, though, made you feel like you belonged. A small restaurant that sat maybe 30 people - Root served flavorful, simple, yet wildly creative meals. We're talking about a guy that dredges brussel sprouts in masa. Weird meats. Duck testicles and swordfish marrow. Proteins that seemed like they had to be cooked out of necessity but really they were just coming from a place of humble creativity.
Two dishes that sum up Root and the dining scene in Pittsburgh for me: One was a medley of sausage, squid, and potatoes, which is not something designed to keep your stomach open to the idea of eating more. I love potatoes and seafood. Combined, the two represent camaraderie to me. It's clam chowder, crawfish boils, and clam bakes. It's picnic tables and big pots with ladles. But, there's also something very old school Mediterranean about it, too. Like the potatoes have to go with squid because you've got to feed your kids. Potatoes are practical. A lot of shareable items at restaurants lack in sustenance, but not this. The other dish that struck me was a tuna bloodline bolognese. Meat sauce, made from the god damn bloodline of a tuna fish. I worked at a seafood market for a few years. Nobody uses the bloodline. Keith, I was told, froze the bloodline then used a bermixer to incorporate it into his bolognese sauce. It's inventive. It's thrifty. It's hearty. Google "tuna bloodline bolognese." Nothing shows up, just Keith Fuller and Root 174. Kind of amazing.
Root was also incredibly vegan friendly, which I love seeing in a chef-centric restaurant. I'm not vegan, but I really hate this movement of culinary types shitting on people for going meatless. It's lame. Hack. A popular opinion is that being vegan is a "1st world privilege" which is true if you're up all night stewing mad over the existence of gluten allergies and kombucha. My friend Josh is vegan, and he came with me to Root once. The day before, my brother and I had made a foie gras terrine for Keith. I gave it to him, and he came back with a plate of his own and said, "You give me foie, I give you foie." Josh was not happy. It had completely slipped my mind that being around foie might upset him. We were exchanging this controversial type of food, which was not on the menu at all, right in front of my friend's face. I felt like an asshole. This interaction aside, Root had this wonderful marriage of meat and vegan options. It felt inclusive. The restaurant felt like it was for everybody.
The kitchen was tiny. You had to walk past it to get to the bathroom. Each year on Thanksgiving night, the restaurant closed to the public, but, if you were service industry and had no where to go, you could go to Root and eat for free (the only cost being a side dish and a shareable drink). Root had tasting menus, but it didn't seem like a "small plates" type of joint. It didn't feel like when they broke ground there was an interior decorater establishing a theme with the furniture. It wasn't one of these places that sounded like an H&M. Nothing about it felt mechanical or trendy. It oozed personality, and the meals were filling and affordable. That's a restaurant in Pittsburgh. Everything about the city is no frills, so why would the dining scene be any different? Forget about molecular gastronomy and trends and James Beard awards, how well are you feeding people? I loved that the no bullshit attitude of the area was flowing through the veins of this restaurant.
I've always had a love/hate relationship with the city of Pittsburgh. As a comic, it was a frustrating place to start doing stand-up. A lady shouted, "Go Steelers" at me one time and it was enough for me to hate football forever. There's probably a direct correlation between bad audience members and good food. Most good food doesn't come from pleasant, artistic types who are willing to listen to a comedy show. In Pittsburgh, it comes from loud descendants of immigrants with almost zero patience. You know what I mean? The guy at Lesvos Gyros on Carson Street yelling at his employees to "shave the meat!" would probably heckle the shit out of me, but damn he makes a good gyro.
After numerous accolades and substantial success, Root 174 closed. I have no idea why, but Keith is back downtown with Pork and Beans, a BBQ place that Pittsburgh sorely needs. I don't know what fine dining is, but Root 174 felt like what it should be. Maybe I've got a chip on my shoulder, that I know if I ever had to work in a reputable restaurant I wouldn't be able to hang, so fuck the things that I know I can't do. It could be that. But also, deep down, I just like places that are doing cool things and remain accessible. My whole issue with fine dining in the first place is that the more artistic and creative things get, the more it prices out people who can enjoy it. Restaurants should be casting a wide net. Most people should be able to enjoy a good meal, and everybody should be able to afford a nice buzz. Maybe you'll spend a little more than you want to on dinner, but hey, here's a can of Busch beer for $1.74 to help soften the blow. That was my kind of place.